Maybe Terrorists are Actually Just Morons?

Gwern has a fascinating essay about terrorism, Terrorism-is-not-about-Terror:

There is a commonly-believed strategic model of terrorism which we could describe as follows: terrorists are people who are ideologically motivated to pursue specific unvarying political goals; to do so, they join together in long-lasting organizations and after the failure of ordinary political tactics, rationally decide to efficiently & competently engage in violent attacks on (usually) civilian targets to get as much attention as possible and publicity for their movement, and inspire fear & terror in the civilian population, which will pressure its leaders to solve the problem one way or another, providing support for the terrorists’ favored laws and/or their negotiations with involved governments, which then often succeed in gaining many of the original goals, and the organization dissolves.

Unfortunately, this model, is in almost every respect, empirically false.

It’s a great essay, so go read the whole thing before we continue. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.



Now, since I know half of you didn’t actually read the essay, I’ll summarize: terrorists are really bad at accomplishing their “objectives.” By any measure, they are really bad at it. Simply doing nothing would, in most cases, further their political goals more effectively.

This is in part because terrorists tend not to conquer and hold land, and in part because terrorism tends to piss off its targets, making them less likely to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Consider 9-11: sure, the buildings fell down, but did it result in America conceding to any of Al-Qaeda’s demands?

The article quotes Abrams 2012:

Jones and Libicki (2008) then examined a larger sample, the universe of known terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of the 648 groups identified in the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident database, only 4% obtained their strategic demands. … Chenoweth and Stephan (2008, 2011) provide additional empirical evidence that meting out pain hurts non-state actors at the bargaining table. … These statistical findings are reinforced with structured in-case comparisons highlighting that escalating from nonviolent methods of protest such as petitions, sit-ins, and strikes to deadly attacks tends to dissuade government compromise. … Other statistical research (Abrahms, 2012, Fortna, 2011) demonstrates that when terrorist attacks are combined with such discriminate violence, the bargaining outcome is not additive; on the contrary, the pain to the population significantly decreases the odds of government concessions.3

(Aside: Remember, right-wing violence doesn’t work. It’s stupid and you will fail at accomplishing anything.)

Another “mystery” about terrorism is that it actually doesn’t happen very often. It’s not that hard to drive a truck into a crowd or attack people with a machete. Armies are expensive; coughing on grocery store produce is cheap.

If terrorism is 1. ineffective and 2. not even used that often, why do terrorist groups exist at all?

Terrorists might just be dumb, stupid people who try to deal with their problems by blowing them up, but there’s no evidence to this effect–terrorists are not less intelligent than the average person in their societies, anyway. People who are merely dumb and violent tend to get into fights with their neighbors, not take airplanes hostage.

Gwern suggests a different possibility: People join terrorist organizations because they want to be friends with the other terrorists. They’re like social clubs, but instead of bowling, you talk about how going on jihad would be totally awesome.

Things people crave: Meaning. Community. Brotherhood.

Terrorist organizations provide these to their members, most of whom don’t actually blow themselves up.

Gwern quotes Sageman’s Understanding Terrorist Networks:

Friendships cultivated in the jihad, just as those forged in combat in general, seem more intense and are endowed with special significance. Their actions taken on behalf of God and the umma are experienced as sacred. This added element increases the value of friendships within the clique and the jihad in general and diminishes the value of outside friendships.

Enough about terrorists; let’s talk about Americans:

“Jihad” is currently part of the Islamic cultural script–that is, sometimes Muslims see some form of “jihad” as morally acceptable. (They are not unique in committing terrorism, though–Marxist terrorists have created trouble throughout Latin America, for instance, and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka were one of the world’s deadliest groups.)

Thankfully, though, few major groups in the US see jihad or terrorist violence as acceptable, but… we have our exceptions.

For example, after a Jewish professor, Bret Weinstein, declined to stay home on a “Day of Absence” intended to force whites away from Evergreen State College, WA, violent protests erupted. Bands of students armed with bats and tasers roamed the campus, searching for Weinstein; the poor professor was forced to flee and eventually resign.

(More on Evergreen.)

Antifa are a growing concern in the US, both on-campus and off. As Wikipedia notes:

Antifa groups, along with black bloc activists, were among those who protested the 2016 election of Donald Trump.[10][44] They also participated in the February 2017 Berkeley protests against alt-right[47][48][49][50] speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, where they gained mainstream attention,[27] with media reporting them “throwing Molotov cocktails and smashing windows”[2] and causing $100,000 worth of damage.[51]

Antifa counter-protesters at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 “certainly used clubs and dyed liquids against the white supremacists”.[39]

During a Berkeley protest on August 27, 2017, an estimated one hundred antifa protesters joined a crowd of 2,000–4,000 counter-protesters to attack a reported “handful” of alt-right demonstrators and Trump supporters who showed up for a “Say No to Marxism” rally that had been cancelled by organizers due to security concerns. Some antifa activists beat and kicked unarmed demonstrators[51][63] and threatened to smash the cameras of anyone who filmed them.[64]

Antifa, like terrorist groups, typically attract folks who are single and have recently left home–young people who have just lost the community they were raised in and in search of a new one.

The article recounts an amusing incident when a terrorist organization wanted to disband a cell, but struggled to convince its members to abandon their commitment to sacrificing themselves on behalf of jihad. Finally they hit upon a solution: they organized social get-togethers with women, then incentivised the men to get married, get jobs, and have babies. Soon all of the men were settled and raising children, too busy and invested in their new families to risk sacrificing it all for jihad. The cell dissolved.

Even Boko Haram was founded in response to the difficulties young men in Nigeria face in affording brides:

Our recent study found that marriage markets and inflationary brideprice are a powerful driver of participation in violence and drive recruitment into armed groups. Armed groups often arrange low-cost marriages for their members, help members afford brideprice, or provide extra-legal opportunities to acquire the capital necessary to take a wife. In Nigeria, in the years in which Boko Haram gained influence under founder Mohammed Yusuf, “items required for [a] successful [marriage] celebration kept changing in tune with inflation over the years.”66  A resident of the Railroad neighborhood of Maiduguri, where Yusuf established his mosque, recalled that in just a few years, Yusuf had facilitated more than 500 weddings. The group also provided support for young men to become “okada drivers,” who gained popularity for their affordable motorbike taxi services — who often used their profits to afford marriage. Thus, Boko Haram’s early recruits were often attracted by the group’s facilitation of marriage. Even in the aftermath of Yusuf’s assassination by the Nigerian state and the rise of Abubakar Shekau, the group has continued to exploit obstacles to marriage to attract supporters. The women and girls that are abducted by the group, estimated to number more than 6,000, are frequently married off to members of the group.

Antifa of course aren’t the only people in the US who commit violence; the interesting fact here is their organization. As far as I know, Dylan Roof killed more people than Antifa, but Roof acted alone.


I suggest, therefore, that the principle thing driving Antifa (and similar organizations) isn’t a rational pursuit of their stated objectives (did driving Milo out of Berkley actually protect any illegal immigrants from deportation?) but the same social factors that drive Muslims to join terrorist groups: camaraderie, brotherhood, and the feeling like they are leading meaningful, moral lives by sacrificing themselves for their chosen cause.

Right-wingers do this, too (the military is an obvious source of “meaning” and “brotherhood” in many people’s lives).

And the pool of unmarried people to recruit into extremist organizations is only growing in America.

We have always been at war with Eurasia--I mean, supported gay marriage

But we don’t have to look to organizations that commit violence to find this pattern. Why change one’s avatar to a rainbow pattern to celebrate gay marriage or overlay a French flag after the Charlie Hebdo attack?

Why spend hours “fighting racism” by “deconstructing whiteness” online when you could do far more to help black people by handing out sandwiches at your local homeless shelter? (The homeless would also appreciate a hot lasagna.) What percentage of people who protest Islamophobia have actually bothered to befriend some Muslims and express support toward them?

The obvious answer is that these activities enhance the actor’s social standing among their friends and online compatriots. Congratulations received for turning your profile picture different colors: objective achieved. Actions that would actually help the targeted group require more effort and return less adulation, since they have to be done in real life.

Liberal groups seem to be better at social organizing–thus I’ve had an easier time coming up with liberal examples of this phenomenon. Conservative political organizations, at least in the US, seem to be smaller and offer less in the way of social benefits (this may be in part because conservatives are more likely to be married, employed, and have children, and because conservatives are more likely to channel such energies into their churches,) but they also do their share of social signaling that doesn’t achieve its claimed goal. “White pride” organizations, for example, generally do little to improve whites’ public image.

But is this an aberration? Or are things operating as designed? What’s the point of friendship and social standing in the first place?

Interestingly, in Jane Goodall‘s account of chimps in the Gombe, we see parallels to the origins of human social structures and friendships. Only male chimps consistently have what we would call “friendships;” females instead tend to live in groups with their children. Male friends benefit from each other’s assistance in hunting and controlling access to other food, like the coveted bananas. A single strong male may dominate a troop of chimps, but a coalition can bring him to a bloody end. Persistent dominance of a chimp troop (and thus dominance of food) is thus easier for males who have a strong coalition on their side–that is, friends.

Man is a political animal:

From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it … inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece at draughts.

And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. … speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.

Most people desire to be members in good standing in their communities:

Thus also the city-state is prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually. [20] For the whole must necessarily be prior to the part; since when the whole body is destroyed, foot or hand will not exist except in an equivocal sense… the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.

Therefore the impulse to form a partnership of this kind is present in all men by nature… –Aristotle, Politics, Book 1

A couple of other relevant quotes:

From Eysenck’s work on political extremism


The spread of the internet has changed both who we’re talking to (the people in our communities) and how we engage with them, resulting in, I hypothesize, a memetic environment that increasingly favors horizontally (rather than vertically) transmitted memes. (If you are not familiar with this theory, I wrote about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Vertically spread memes tend to come from your parents and are survival-oriented; horizontal memes come from your friends and are social. A change in the memetic environment, therefore, has the potential to change the landscape of social, moral, and political ideas people frequently encounter–and has allowed us to engage in nearly costless, endless social signaling.

The result of that, it appears, is political polarization:


According to Pew:

A decade ago, the public was less ideologically consistent than it is today. In 2004, only about one-in-ten Americans were uniformly liberal or conservative across most values. Today, the share who are ideologically consistent has doubled: 21% express either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across a range of issues – the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy and many others.

The new survey finds that as ideological consistency has become more common, it has become increasingly aligned with partisanship. Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years.

This, of course, makes it harder for people to find common ground for compromises.

So if we want a saner, less histrionic political culture, the first step may be encouraging people to settle down, get married, and have children, then work on building communities that let people feel a sense of meaning in their real lives.

Still, I think letting your friends convince you that blowing yourself is a good idea is pretty dumb.


17 thoughts on “Maybe Terrorists are Actually Just Morons?

  1. Terrorism can and does work, at least occasionally. That is all it needs, because the point of political action in general is not “policy”. Nobody cares about “policy”. What they care about is power. The point of terrorism — as for any other political activity — is organizing for power. What is power worth? What is status worth? What level of risk is worth taking for these things if you have none?

    For most normal men, the answer is a lot.

    Now, you might think that it would be even safer to sit back and let someone else do all the fighting. Then when the state falls apart for whatever reason, you just step in and claim power, with no risk as you might incur from being a known enemy of the state. But the problem is then you develop no reputation as having fought, and no set of comrades bonded to you and vice versa. Nobody will fight for you (literally fight) when the power struggle begins. So it won’t be you capturing power. It will be some dumbass who just wanted to hang with his boys.

    Gwern fingers comradery as the explanation, and that seems right as far as it goes. But then that gets back to the why: why do men want comrades and enjoy comradery? Because we’re programmed to by evolution. But why does evolution want us to want comrades?

    To seize power.

    Site note: all those studies Gwern is looking at could really use to separate terrorism into leftwing and rightwing varieties. I wager they’d find something interesting. Since WWII, rightwing terrorism always fails, leftwing (sometimes) works. This suggests something important about terrorism. Left as an exercise to the reader.


  2. Of course, part of this stems from the fact that terrorism is like treason – when it works, we tend not to call it that. Israel, Independent Ireland, Kenya, Post- Apartheid South Africa, Algeria, Vietnam, Post-Civil Rights America, and numerous other states were all created, or had regime changes, either partially or wholly by what we today would call “terrorism”, but these countries don’t go out of their way to point this out. Yes, terrorism seldom works, but most forms of political activism don’t work, and when terrorism does work, the payoff is big.

    Gwern’s attempts to explain the world with a spreadsheet are interesting and informative, but like Bryan Caplan, he sometimes misses the obvious


  3. Well, they are drawing from some very low IQ populations.

    But it did look like Bin Laden was smart for a while there. It appeared he correctly understood what America would do, and the kind of destabilization that would cause, and that it would allow for an Islamic Caliphate to rise. Bin Laden had goals- I remember reading this stuff in Newsweek or Time long before 9/11.

    And it looked like the plan was working, until Trump. He wants to get out, and doesn’t like playing the game like Bush and Obama did. So the Caliphate seems to have dried up and blown away. Maybe they just aren’t reporting on it.


  4. Terrorism works plenty. To take your alleged counter example, following 9/11 the entire political and media class across the western world started an extended campaign of genuflecting to Islam, which has had the result of vastly increasing the scope of Islam in general and radical Islam in particular within the western world. The U.S. responded by invading Afghanistan, which hurt Al Queda as an organisation, but did nothing to damage it’s cause of promoting restorationist Islam, quite the opposite. And, for good measure, for the first time the U.S. gov explicitly endorsed the concept of a Palestinian State, one of Al Queda’s core intermediate political goals.

    But that’s only your example. There are plenty of examples where terrorism worked even better. Hell, you’re living in a country founded on it and so am I.

    Moldbug, as always, has the answer. Terrorism works when people in power either sympathize with the aims of the terrorists or when they think they can screw over some enemy by making concessions to the terrorists. Since, the U.S. gov runs the world and since it is so labyrinthine that pretty much any group anywhere in the world can find support from some corner of it just by hanging around long enough, terrorism is a worth a shot for pretty much anyone except groups the US gov really hates, such as white nationalists


  5. horizontal vs vertical memes is an exceptionally useful tool for thinking about culture. it has been leaking into a lot of my thoughts lately; is it original to your blog?


  6. I agree with a lot of what you said but this,

    “…(Aside: Remember, right-wing violence doesn’t work. It’s stupid and you will fail at accomplishing anything.)…

    ,is not true at all. Plenty of other example were given by your readers. Here’s some more. Operation Gladio moved Europe away from Communism after WWII. At Charlottesville, Virginia the Antifa counter-protesters at the 2017 Unite the Right rally attacked the Alt-Right and put an end to large pro-White rallies and a synthesis of right groups to work together. There’s lots of evidence they were paid to so. There’s also witnesses that a large contingent of these arrived in buses or witnesses have said so. It was very effective.

    Look at what appear to many as false flags the spate of mass shootings. Are they not restricting gun ownership. I believe they are and I also believe they are not random but are coordinated attacks.

    I have to add the 9-11 attacks worked great for the people that did it, Jews, as our Army has spent several trillion dollars fighting their enemies. I harp on 9-11 because it tells you who has the ultimate say in our present government. If I’m a raving lunatic then anyone who says different should have no trouble explaining how building 7 fell the same speed as if it were only supported by air. No columns. no cement, no…nothing but air. I submit that the only way the building could fall like that is if some sort of demo was used. I hate to keep harping on this but it’s important that no one in any way believe the story that some guys in a tunnel did this with box cutters. I want no one to actually trust what our present government is saying because they are a huge lot of lairs and mean us no good. Not in everything of course but people should be warned that the public, the average regular guy that you see on the street has no control over the policies of our government and a great deal of these policies are to our detriment.

    I don’t fault mother “EvolutionistX” for saying.”violence doesn’t work. It’s stupid and you will fail at accomplishing anything” as mothers always say this to keep down the level of violence, God bless them, but it doesn’t mean it’s quantifiably correct.


  7. My head space and timing has been all fucked up lately so I havent been able to work through it all but the fatal flaw in the terrorist are morons is failing to understand the other guys objectives. Dont get me wrong, most of them are idiots, just like most street level criminals are idiots but they generally have a predators cunning and there are smart guys calling the shots, planning the operations, designing stuff like IED’s

    The biggest mistake I see is unrealistic objectives/ mission creep which would make them intellectlly on par with whoever runs amercia’s frogein policy……


  8. So if we want a saner, less histrionic political culture, the first step may be encouraging people to settle down, get married, and have children, then work on building communities that let people feel a sense of meaning in their real lives.

    Ps that simply cannot be argued against. That’s what succesful and growing tribes do. All over the world and throughout time. However both major political parties in the usa are at war with the foundational principles that allow people to build familes and communities, tribes and nations.


  9. “Still, I think letting your friends convince you that blowing yourself is a good idea is pretty dumb.”

    I’m not sure if this final sentence is missing the word ‘up’, or is a 3D chess level comment. Works either way.


  10. My level of surprise as I encountered the very beginning of this piece (no further than the second long quote, by Abrams) was so unexpected that I immediately noticed myself scanning my knowledge about terrorist groups, particularly Muslim ones, for something that supported or was supported by the shockingly low success rate/longevity of these familiar yet alien (I follow global Islamism very closley, but have never even seen an actual terrorist, even an aspiring one, in person) clubs of the highest order of dramatism.

    Something started to emerge and then reappear in my head rapidly, a memory to help scratch the I-must-have-known-this-somehow itch on my lower ego, which disappeared instantly the moment I saw it validated further in your article. Men! These are often groups exclusively of men, and specifically of relatively young men: a pyramid built of a base layer of men in their late teens to mid-twenties, under a smaller layer of men in their mid-twenties to their early/mid-thirties, under the apex made up a small number of leaders and role models in their late-thirties and early-forties. This is not unlike the military, or professional sports leagues, or several different professional organizations.

    I have a completely unstudied, as far as I know not externally supported personal theory based on lots of bad stuff like personal experience, childhood conceptualizations, and my own sexual attractions. It nonetheless checks out, and it’s vaguely that a group of close-knit high-energy group of heterosexual men is capable of nearly anything when enough of it’s members are under the influence of each other. Like a pack of young wolves on the night of a full moon, this inkling, as it was at first, made sense to me both by the behavior I saw by groups of jocks in high school seemingly feeding off of each other’s own animalistic ideas, especially at large parties where alcohol was abundant. As I grew older, so did this inkling, compiling more and more corroborating observations like the indisputable fact, in my opinion, that groups of men are the most efficient crew for getting almost anything done, in contrast to women who appear to view each other as adversaries rather than young men’s seemingly nonverbal ability to join together almost automatically, with a few somehow shared understandings of the emotional/relational/hierarchical structures of closeness and rank, etc. among them and logistical processes like division of responsibilities, time expectations, and in which order to address things, as members of a unified team with a job to do – a common goal which strengthened their unity and in turn streamlined job completion, the progress of which inspired continued unity, and so on, in a nearly ideal feedback loop that seemed to just magically come about without any member seeming to even fully recognize its existence, or at least not ever express such a reflection with the other guys. As I got even older and began to confront ideas like “male privilege” and the later debunked “gender pay gap” with my understanding of males playing the role of provider, protector, and logistical problem-solver not just in human history but in the majority of mammals.

    Combining all this with the less emotional intensity generally present in men than women or a similar statistic about male emotion which puts the male incidence of Antisocial Personality Disorder, i.e., sociopathy, at least three-fold that of women.

    This is where the top of that pyramid comes back into mind: older males who naturally fill the role of leader, and who are unique among their age group for not often not having married or started a family already have two traits common to both sociopaths and those who often build up the morale, courage, and thereby the dangerousness of a younger follower by leading him to carry out suicidal mass-casualty attacks that he otherwise would have lacked independent inclination to participate in or the assuredness that it was necessary or morally commanded, important, and/or worthy enough of sacrificing the rest of one’s own life.

    So this is where I felt myself splitting from your overly-simplistic seeming (yet hilarious) conclusion that in order to die for such an unlikely chance of political success, possibly they’re all “actually just morons”. I think, like the aforementioned teams of goal-achievers I witnessed in my own life, the completion of the job relies on the harmony of the separate members’ roles and responsibilities. I agree that the youngest members are simply in search of meaning and proving themselves as capable adult men. The middle group I believe are a mixture of two types. First are slightly more mature members who have come to over-rely on the group for the other two spiritual prizes you mention: community and brotherhood, but in a short time will find it elsewhere and/or be sifted out of the organization by the leaders. Second are the junior executives: men who meet the psychological and leadership criteria to qualify as truly dark “evildoers” but still lack the age and experience within the hierarchy to rise to the top. The eldest, senior executives in the top layer of the pyramid are exactly that: chief executive officers who, by their decision-making power, experience, and innate leadership intuitions, keep the organization in “business” by supporting the closeness of the men inside, the harmony of the group’s various different “departments”, if you will, and ultimately the execution of the common goal, terrorist attacks.

    I imagine the situation with Antifa is similar, except that the loftier spiritual/existential desires of real terrorist groups is replaced with a slightly graduated form of the hatred and resentment they as nonconformists (read: social outcasts) felt toward their schoolyard bullies projected onto figures like Milo Yiannopoulos who are famous for picking on and encouraging broader rejection for the social outcast victims of adult society: trans people, minorities, gays, and obese women. It’s officially about those groups, but it’s also about outdated and misdirected anger from their own personal victimization before arriving on campus, which is in perfect sync with you observation that their acts of sub-ISIS-level violence are cherished with intense passion, despite providing no benefit for the people ostensibly defended or protected by it, and in proving mildly effective for the achievement of anything at all. I’m 26, which I assume is younger than you, and perhaps lends me a deeper understanding of this group as simply SJW’s-on-steroids with less impulse control and less to lose than their older counterparts.

    I spent so long writing this that I don’t have the wherewithal to proofread it, so if you do read it, forgive me for likely not making much sense. (No disrespect intended!) I am a brand-new reader of your blog but became a superfan of your writing almost immediately. Your intelligence and talent as a writer are intimidatingly impressive, and I consider my own intelligence among the top 10% of everyone currently alive, so, for another’s mind to appear brighter than mine to the point of intimidating me is the best compliment you’ve received all week, believe me.

    (P.S. I should probably also disclose that I’m gay, which is almost certainly necessary for understanding what I imagine appear as very confusing developments of perspective and theory on groups of straight men.)


    • Hello and welcome to my blog. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comment (and the compliment); I enjoyed reading it. I was about to recommend my posts on Jane Goodall’s book, In the Shadow of Man, but then I remembered that I linked to it in the post (It has been a while since I wrote it, so my memory was fuzzy.)

      I do think there is a lot to be said for man’s natural inclination toward organization (and camaraderie). It is amazing how people in different situations and walks of life–from pirate ships to prisons to churches–organize and get things done. Sorry I don’t have time to write much more right now, but I hope you have a chance to join us for the conversation about Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. (I’d better go work on that right now.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s